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The Indiana Fever’s Rookie Revolution

They don’t have to do much to improve on their 2021 WNBA season, but an impressive and exciting five-member rookie class gives the Indiana Fever a chance to make noise.

The Indiana Fever won six games last year. There’s no getting around that they were the worst team in the WNBA. And when Tamika Catchings resigned from her post as general manager in February, the league cellar-dwellers were left without direction.

Enter interim GM and women’s basketball legend Lin Dunn.

The former head coach and women’s basketball Hall of Famer took the reins, inheriting plenty of opportunity from her predecessor with three first-round picks in the 2022 WNBA Draft. The Fever then picked up a fourth first-rounder and seven overall selections, with five ultimately making Friday’s opening night roster.

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The rookie infusion will, at least, give Indiana fans — and basketball fans, for that matter — a reason to tune in. In the span of one draft, the Fever selected arguably:

  • The surest thing in NaLyssa Smith
  • The biggest surprise in Lexie Hull
  • The most electric player in Destanni Henderson
  • The toughest player in Emily Engstler

The Team

With that, all you’ll really have to do to evaluate the quality of this year’s draft class is look up in a couple of years and see how the Indiana Fever are doing (well, maybe not literally; plenty of other premium talent went elsewhere, including Rhyne Howard to the Atlanta Dream, but you get the idea).

More important to the here and now, the Fever have more versatility and more options than they did one year ago. Leading scorers Kelsey Mitchell and Tiffany Mitchell are back, with Danielle Robinson anchoring the backcourt. Bria Hartley arrived in the offseason via trade. That gives the rookies Henderson and Hull the opportunity to develop without needing to be the primary or secondary option.

And if someone goes down with an injury, Indiana should still have enough firepower to stay afloat.

Tiffany Mitchell will provide a veteran presence on a young Fever squad (Photo: PSE/Matt Kryger)

As Hull said on draft night, she’s not a player who is going to sit back and let losses pile up.

“I remember in my first talk with them I asked, ‘What are you guys looking for in a player?’ When they explained it, I felt like I was checking off a lot of those boxes,'” she told Krem.com in reflecting on her pre-draft talks with Indiana. “They wanted someone who was competitive, who hated to lose, who worked hard every possession, and then who could shoot the ball.”

In the frontcourt, the team has to contend with the loss of Teira McCowan, who is now with the Dallas Wings after nearly averaging a double-double last year. So, what did the Fever do? They drafted Smith with the No. 2 overall pick, a national champion in college who nearly had a double-double in her first preseason game and scored 18 in her second. Not to be outdone, fellow rookie Queen Egbo put up 15 and 10 in Indiana’s first exhibition, forcing her way into the starting lineup in the second, where she did not disappoint. Engstler was solid in both games as well, going 8-17 from the field and hitting all three of her three-point attempts.

On draft night, Engstler looked ahead to playing with a fellow first-round front court selection in Smith.

“I think me and Nalyssa will actually work well together. She’s an amazing player, she’s hard to guard, and she plays defense,” she said. “You want to play with girls who have motors, who want to be there.”

Preseason games are rarely a good indicator of what to expect in the regular season, but at the very least we know that the young Indiana Fever front court can compete against WNBA talent.

But don’t go planning your playoff game watch party just yet.

Trial and Error

If you’re a rebuilding franchise looking to set yourselves up for sustained success, you’d assemble a roster exactly the way Dunn has in Indiana. But any Fever fan will tell you not to draw any sweeping conclusions about this year’s team based on the hype around this year’s rookie class.

NaLyssa Smith and Destanni Henderson (PSE/Matt Kryger)

The Fever have had lottery picks — in the WNBA, that’s the top four — in each of the past five years, and the franchise has seen firsthand just how unpredictable each rookie class could be. In 2018, Indiana took Kelsey Mitchell with the No. 2 overall pick; she led the team in scoring last season (17.2 points per game). The next year, the Fever selected Teaira McCowan, who led the 2021 team in rebounding (9.6), blocks (1.6), and field goal percentage (53.7) per game.

While those are the undoubtedly success stories, the 2020 and 2021 drafts proved disastrous. In ’20, Indy went with reigning Big 12 player of the year Lauren Cox. Tht was an easy decision at the time, but a battle with COVID-19 to start her rookie season followed by a knee injury hampered her out of the gate. The Fever waived her in June of last year.

In 2021, it was Kysre Gondrezick, who put up nearly 20 per game for West Virginia that season. She played sparingly in just 19 games with the Fever last year before being waived in January.

So, keep all that in mind before you start throwing money on the Indiana Fever to make noise this season. There’s potential. There’s reason to be excited. But with the exception of a few veterans, they have not accomplished anything in this league yet.

Salary Cap Situation

via Spotrac

2022 WNBA Salary Cap: $1,379,200 per team
2022 Salary Floor: $1,154,340 per team

Total Fever Salary Cap Usage : $1,378,124
Fever Cap Space: $1,076 (via herhoopstats)

Payroll Flexibility

There’s not much risk to this Fever roster, which will allow the team to make moves during the offseason if the front office doesn’t think the current core is working out. Going into opening night, the team is basically at the salary cap, but two of their four highest-paid players are coming off the books at the end of the season in Hartley and Mitchell, with Alaina Coates, Alanna Smith, and Victoria Vivians all restricted free agents.

Despite their long-term potential, the 2022 Fever are still expected to perform modestly enough that they’ll have a high draft pick in 2023. That leaves open the possibility of adding an Aliyah Boston, Haley Jones, or Tamari Key to the roster next season, all of whom could be true impact players. With a strong free agent pool coming up to go with a solid draft class, Indiana is by no means married to this group.

The new-look Fever get their first crack at a real win on Friday night when they open the season in Washington against the Mystics. The game will tip at 7 p.m. ET and stream on Facebook.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.